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Longleaf pines along the Trace © Longleaf Trace© Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
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Trail of the Month: August 2010
Mississippi's Longleaf Trace

This trail is a recipient of the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame Award. Click to learn more. In Mississippi's Piney Woods country, vast forests of longleaf and slash pines once ruled the landscape. Much of that original growth disappeared in the timber boom that lasted into the 1920s, but you can still find plenty of remnants and recovering woodlands that give the state its familiar matting of pine straw and pine cones. So if you're keen to needle your way across the Pine Belt, and to re-trace the path of industry and settlement in Mississippi, you won't find a more appropriate route than the 40.25-mile Longleaf Trace.

"The Trace is special in our communities," says Herlon Pierce, who has managed the rail-trail since it first opened on Labor Day in 2000. "The old railroad was really the reason that many of our towns and cities exist in this area. So the trail preserves a big piece of history—a big piece of what we were all about."

A retired civil engineer, Pierce had been asked to do the construction inspection on the Trace. He ended up staying on to manage the pathway, thinking it would only be for a short time because of his age.

"Now they'll have to run me off," he says. "I love it."

Owned by the Mississippi Department of Transportation, the trail begins in Hattiesburg, right at the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi. From there, following a Mississippi Central Railroad corridor, the asphalt pathway cuts northwest to the timber town of Prentiss (with a bit of a climb at the end).

Rolling with the hills around it—at times requiring a few more pedal strokes than usual for a rail-trail—the Trace visits wetlands, small lakes and a handful of community downtowns. And among the many pine forests, you'll get ample views of the trail's namesake, the longleaf pine.

Known formally as pinus palustris ("pine of the marsh"), longleaf pines once covered 30 to 60 million acres of the southeastern United States. They are highly resistant to fire and can grow to more than 100 feet. Some can live longer than 400 years, but they can take up to 150 years to reach full size.

Longleaf pines may be slow growers, but another local shrub has flourished and rather prickled trail managers. Privet hedges, popular for their blossoms and amenability to pruning, have taken root along much of the trailside. They can sprout a foot a week in the right weather, says Pierce, and folks compliment them all the time. But that heartiness proved troublesome along the dirt equestrian path that parallels the Trace for 22.5 miles from Epley Station west to Carson Station. Indeed privet hedges had choked out most of the route.

"Privet hedge," says Pierce. "I think that word kind of describes it. They will privatize and hide your yard in a hurry!"

Since there wasn't an easy way to manage the privet hedges on the woodsy equestrian path, Pierce had the trail widened and upgraded. It now has a minimum 15-foot width and can even accommodate wagon traffic. The equestrian path zigzags across the main asphalt Trace a few times because of terrain, but otherwise it is entirely separate and remains surfaced in dirt.

These careful management touches—and others, including covered rest areas and restrooms—have made the Trace a shipshape attraction. "We tried to put our money into maintenance," says Pierce. "I promise you, we've got a well-kept trail."

Not just well kept, but also well traveled. According to trail statistics, an estimated 65,000 users hit the Trace in 2009. And since the trail opened in 2000, visitors have come from all 50 states and a number of other countries.

Businesses have opened along the corridor, and new housing subdivisions advertise their proximity to the trail. Doctors are using it to prescribe physical activity for patients, and 20 percent of the estimated 40,000 residents who live within three miles of the Trace have reported an increase in regular exercise. "We have an awful lot of people who have incorporated the Trace into their daily routines," says Pierce.

The Trace is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary this September, and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has fittingly named the pathway to the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. So let the swoosh of longleaf pines whisk you into southern Mississippi. It's a perfect time to enjoy and appreciate a decade's worth of trail excellence.

TrailLink.com, powered by Rails-to-Trails ConservancyFor more information, maps, photos and user reviews of these trails, or to post your own comments, please visit TrailLink.com.


This month's Trail of the Month is generously sponsored by:

 

Related Links

Longleaf Trace

Friends of the Longleaf Trace

Mississippi Department of Transportation

 

Trail Facts

Name: Longleaf Trace

Trail Web site: www.mylongleaftrace.com

Length: 40.25 miles

Counties: Forrest, Jefferson Davis and Lamar

Start Point/ End Point: Hattiesburg to Prentiss

Surface type: Asphalt

Uses: Walking, running, bicycling, inline skating and equestrian; the full trail is wheelchair accessible.

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Access and Parking: The Longleaf Trace provides maps, a mileage chart, trail rules and etiquette, and a number of other tools and information, including a local weather forecast for the trail.

You can also log into TrailLink.com for free to explore an interactive GIS map of the Trace, as well as reviews, images and loads of other info to help plan your trip.

Nearby Attractions: If you're a little concerned about August in Mississippi, when you might wear the heat and humidity like a soggy t-shirt, you have some great options nearby to stay cool. Not far from Hattiesburg you can access Black Creek, a National Scenic River that travels through the Desoto National Forest. You can either haul your own canoe for the trip or rent from a local outfitter, like Black Creek Canoe, which is about 18 miles south of Hattiesburg. Either way, the slow, lazy currents and abundant shade are a fine way to escape the sunshine.

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of each week until August 13, downtown Hattiesburg will be hosting its popular Midsummer's Daydream Concert Series. Performed by the Strings Quartet of the Southern Miss Symphony, the concerts take place from noon to 1 p.m. at various restaurants. Shows from August 4 to 6 will take place at 206 Front; those on August 11 to 13 at The Pastry Garden. Both venues are only a couple miles from the trailhead at Southern Miss.

August is a musical month in Mississippi. In its 35th season, the Hattiesburg Civic Light Opera will be performing a dinner theater, "100 Years of Broadway," August 11-15. Wednesday to Saturday, dinner begins at 6:30 p.m., with the show to follow; on Sunday, the matinee starts at 1 p.m. Call 601.583.5694 to reach the box office for more information about the show and ticket prices.

Pond between Sumrall and Bassfield © Steve Machnik

© Longleaf Trace

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